I almost passed over Dreams and Shadows. The cover and the title give the idea of a world of rainbows and lollipops darkened by the glimmer of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Apparently the British cover, distributed by a different publishing house, paints a bit of a darker picture, but I didn’t have that on hand at the time. The only thing that drew me to take a chance on what seemed at first glance to be a particularly uninspired children’s novel was the publisher’s blurb, something that gave no promises but spoke of hidden depths and dangers. The end result is one of my favorite novels of 2013.
C. Robert Cargill’s Dreams and Shadows tells the story of two boys linked by the fearless heroism and arguable selfishness of one and the inhuman upbringing of the other and the world that they both grew into. Generally speaking, it is the world that draws you in, taking up the first half of the book, and the plot that delivers in the second half. In the process of doing this it becomes a strange creation; like Ewan (named for Ewan MacGreggor after his parents watched Trainspotting in the opening chapter) and Colby (not named for anything in particular, although this name tends to remind me of cheese), an amalgamation of a myriad of influences and cultures. Joining them among the main cast are supernatural creates of Celtic, Germanic and Arabic mythology, and along for the ride are fae of Christian and Native American origin, among others.
It is these influences that the first half of Dreams and Shadows heaps upon us in abundance (although we don’t actually see fallen angels until the second half). After a cringe-worthy opening that almost stretches the perfect fairy tale romance too far (largely in making Ewan a baby that is just so pleasant to have around that it tears willful suspension of disbelief in two), the book takes a dark turn and begins piling tragedy upon tragedy. The baby is replaced with a changeling, the mother kills himself, the father is killed by an underwater faerie in his attempts to drown the changeling. The story of the tragedy that brought the changeling into existence is told, and a further tragedy of an ancient djinn, who just so turns out to have been irreparably cursed by somebody else’s attempt to bring happiness to the world. To say that this book is dark would be to imply that the scenes that could be spun off into a slasher film on their own are the least pleasant thing to be found here.
Throughout all of this, each myth is explored, whether through the characters themselves, exposition, or scholarly journals from the book’s world that are sampled where relevant. These journals introduce elements of the world such as human speculation on whether a Leanan Sidhe is truly evil or kills out of love, and how even a loving and friendly faerie is likely to kill you for the sake of survival. It is through these segments that we learn that the fae race entered into a pact with Satan, for which its members routinely brainwash and sacrifice human children for the sake of their own longevity.
All of this sets the tone for the abbreviated segment that becomes the actual plot of the novel: the moment when the childhood life and circumstances surrounding Ewan and Colby catches up with them, in the form of the changeling who was sent to imitate Ewan and a faerie who had a crush on him. Colby, who is in some ways the audience proxy and is in other ways impossible for the audience to decipher, is his only line of defense in a world that we have learned is only going to make things hell for those who have been destined to be victims. From there the story is a struggle to avoid terrible fate after terrible fate.
If I had to select one flaw within the pages of Dreams and Shadows to criticize, it is actually something that is associated with the title: the word “dreamstuff”, which is used to describe the energy that makes up everything supernatural about the world of the novel. To be fair this is more than likely a remnant of the manner in which it is introduced: as a physics article describing why the universe has so much more energy than can be accounted for. It is this physicist that coins the term “dreamstuff” in the book, and it just fells so out of place in this passage that each subsequent use of the word echoes that sentiment. If the “particle” was given a slightly less whimsical name or were simply introduced in a way in which this name made more sense (perhaps a sorcerer who first developed the ability to control it through his dreams), it would have been much easier to buy. In its current state, it feels as though Cargill was merely at a loss of how to refer to magic without alienating the mythologies included in the book, and chose an inoffensive name out of a hat.
This is a flaw I can overlook, however, as the name does little to effect the overall story and mythology present. Dreams and Shadows can work equally well in the distinctive worlds of October Daye and Harry Potter (though most efforts to combine them into a single canon would be likely to raise more questions than answers), and is a thoroughly entertaining book that dances across multiples moods and genres. While it is on occasion frustrating to have to travel through a genre you’re not particularly in the mood for in order to get to one you are (such as finding yourself in the middle of the aforementioned “slasher” passage after picking up the book for a fantasy romp), it’s a minor annoyance and one that doesn’t keep you guessing more than is necessary to produce a diverse and interesting book. If you’re a fan of authors such as Brom or Seanan McGuire, Dreams and Shadows is a book that I would recommend picking up to slate your thirst for fantasy.